Friday, 19 June 2020

The Voyage of the Venus Pirates, 1806-1807

Early Sailing Vessels and Visitors to Tauranga, Part VIII
The Voyage of the Venus Pirates, 1806-1807

Looking out to sea, most Tauranga residents can identify Taumaihi Island. Situated close to the southern end of Motiti or Flat Island, it is accessible at low tide with permission, via a narrow spit of packed stone and sand. During the first two decades of the 19th century, Motiti was intensely cultivated and supported a large Maori population. Taumaihi Island which had been scarped over the centuries into an impregnable refuge pa known as Matarehua, was in 1806 controlled by the Ngaiterangi rangatira Hukere. The arrival of the Venus, a small, innocuous brigantine (two masted vessel), off Motiti and Taumaihi in 1806 set in motion events that led to the destruction of Matarehua Pa, the death of Hukere and many of the Motiti people.

An early 19th century brigantine
Built in Calcutta, the 45 ton Venus arrived in Sydney on 8th May 1805 with a cargo of tea, rice and jute sacks. Purchased by the Sydney merchants Campbell and Co., the vessel made two sealing voyages to the islands of the Antipodes and Bass Strait. On the 16th June 1806, after transporting a cargo of provisions and rum for the military at Port Dalrymple, Tasmania, the convict crew of 14, seized the Venus and sailed away with the cargo. Despite having little knowledge of navigation, the Venus’s pilot successfully crossed the Tasman, before making landfall among the Te Aupouri people at North Cape. There, the convicts seized and carried off two high born Aupouri women as sex slaves.

The Venus next called at the Bay of Islands where two of the crew and two convict female passengers were marooned ashore, and two Ngapuhi wahine rangatira (chieftainesses) were kidnapped. One of these women was the sister of Te Morenga, who was one of the most powerful chiefs at the Bay. The other was related to Hongi Hika who later achieved fame as the greatest Musket Wars general and conqueror of tribes. Calling at Whangarei, two further high born women were kidnapped, one of them being Tawaputa, the niece of Te Morenga. Entering the Hauraki Gulf, the Venus visited Thames where it was boarded by the leading Ngati Paoa rangatira Te Haupa and his daughter. Noticing that the sails were billowing and that the Venus was underway Te Haupa leapt overboard, but his daughter was carried off by the pirates.

After rounding Cape Brett, the Venus was sailed into the Bay of Plenty. It is not known if the vessel entered Tauranga Harbour, but at Motiti Island, some 10 miles to the north-east, the convicts sold Te Morenga’s niece Tawaputa. Purchased by Hukere in exchange for parawai (superior cloaks), she was kept as his slave wife at Matarehua Pa. In due course, Te Waru, Ngaiterangi’s leading chief came into dispute with Hukere over Tawaputa. Taken across to Tauranga, she was killed either by Te Waru or at his direction at his pa on Mount Maunganui and her body was cooked and eaten.

Motiti Spit at low tide with Taumaihi Island (Matarehua Pa) in the distance
Responding to rumours about the fate of his abducted niece and sister, Te Morenga sent spies disguised as traders to the Bay of Plenty and East Coast. They reported that some of the women abducted by the Venus convicts had been sold, and later killed and eaten at Tauranga, and at Maraenui Pa, the Te Whanau-a-Apanui fortress located at the mouth of the Motu River in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Others, including Te Morenga’s sister, they stated, had suffered the same fate at Kawakawa Bay (Hicks Bay) near East Cape in the rohe of the Ngati Porou iwi. It was to be 12 years however, before Te Morenga and Hongi Hika accumulated sufficient muskets to ensure victory over the offending iwi and to exact the utu that custom demanded.
In January 1818, Te Morenga led a fleet of waka taua (war canoes) south to Motiti, where Taumaihi Island and the Pa of Matarehua was besieged by land and sea. Armed only with rakau-Maori weapons of stone, bone and wood, the Ngaiterangi defenders eventually succumbed to the firepower of the northern musketeers. The pa was stormed with great slaughter, but Te Waru escaped to Tauranga. Hukere was killed and several hundred survivors including his wife were taken back to the Bay of Islands as slaves. Matarehua Pa was never reoccupied by Ngaiterangi.

In January 1820, Te Morenga led an expedition against Te Waru at Tauranga and during two battles, many Ngaiterangi were killed by gunfire. With honour satisfied and peace arranged, Te Morenga returned to the Bay of Islands, taking with him with all Te Waru's canoes, 200 prisoners of war, and the toi moko (cured tattooed heads) of several chiefs.

Te Morenga’s moko kanohi (face tattoo)
Eight years after the kidnapping of niece and sister by the Venus pirates, Te Morenga sketched this image of his own ta moko for John Nicholas who was assistant to the leading missionary Samuel Marsden.

What became of the Venus is uncertain. A brig which may well have been the Venus was reported to have been in distress off the Northland coast in May 1808. Te Pahi, a Ngapuhi rangatira was reported to have hanged the pirates when the vessel returned to the Bay of Islands. Maori elsewhere in New Zealand claimed to have captured a vessel about this time. The crew were killed, eaten and the ship burned on the beach to obtain the metal nails.

Regardless, one convict pirate proved a great survivor. John Redmonds, a black veteran whaling sailor who piloted the Venus down the North Island’s east coast, was found living as a Pakeha-Maori at Mercer on the Waikato River during the 1860s and has left descendants. His ‘Wanted’ description posted by the Sydney authorities in 1806 read: ‘broad nosed, thick lips, stout made, wears hair tied, and with holes in his ears, being accustomed to wear large ear-rings’, suggesting a pirate out of a story of the Spanish Main. The actions of Redmonds and his fellow pirates however, cannot be romanticized. Their abduction, enslavement and sale of seven northern wahine rangatira, set in train a cycle of utu that escalated into New Zealand’s longest, and bloodiest conflict – the intertribal Musket Wars (1818-1839).


Bentley, Trevor, Pakeha Maori: The Exraordinary Story of the Europeans Who Lived as Maori in Early New Zealand, Penguin, Auckland, 1999.
Crosby, R. D; The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-Iwi conflict, 1806-45, Reed, Auckland, 1999.
Foster, Bernard, ‘Te Morenga’, An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. A. H. Mclintock (ed.), 1966, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand,
Marsden, Samuel, The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden, 1765-1838, J. Elder (ed.), Coulls, Somerville Wilkie and A. H./ Reed, Dunedin, 1932.
Nicholas, J. L; Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, Vol. I, James Black, London, 1817.
Smith, S, P; Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1910.
Vennell, C. W; The Brown Frontier: New Zealand, 1806-1877, A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1967.


Robinson, John and George Francis Dow, The Sailing Ships of New England, 1607-1907, Marine Research Society, Salem Mass, 1922, plate no. 89.
Motiti Spit at low tide with Taumaihi Island (Matarehua Pa) in the distance. Author’s collection.                   
Te Morenga, self portrait in Nicholas, John, Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, Performed in the Years 1814 and 1815, James Black, London, 1817: 216.

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